In 1934, the fledgling Republic of Turkey raced ahead of numerous European democracies, including France, Italy and Belgium, by granting women full political rights. For the decades that followed, the Turkish system stood apart from many of its neighbours, with women enjoying comprehensive rights, protections under the law and being active participants in the country’s democratic institutions. For Turkey, the idea of the woman’s place being confined to the home was not one that took a firm hold.
How tragic it therefore is that a country once so progressive on women’s rights, now finds itself backsliding on its noble history of gender equality.
The latest cause for alarm is Turkey considering withdrawal from the Istanbul convention, which strengthens the personal and civil rights of women. This highlights the disturbing consequences of the increasingly hard-line Islamist doctrine pursued by President Erdogan. This agenda is slowly but surely stripping away hard-won secular freedoms, whose foundations were put into place by the father of the nation, Kamal Ataturk.
The convention is specifically targeted at increasing resource and regulation regarding domestic violence, enshrining in law specific protections to protect women from abuse. Yet tragically, 474 women were killed in Turkey last year due specifically to their gender, four times the number in 2011, the year the convention was ratified. The message this sends to Turkish women is that the government no longer considers ensuring your safety a top priority.
This disturbing state of affairs is characteristic of Turkey’s slide into Islamism, and with Islamism comes a number of sure-fire bets; one of them is a restriction on the rights of women, with the most vulnerable women suffering greatest. Another is that the personal body space of women becomes a battleground for men, who make it a point to cover them up according to how they sexualise parts of a woman’s body.
The warning signs under President Erdogan have long been there. In 2016 he infamously said Turkish women who reject motherhood were ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete’, before urging them to each produce at least three children. This at best backwards and at worst medieval view of women as a ubiquitous group whose primary role in life is the production of children, betrays his country’s proud past of encouraging women to play an active and varied role in all parts of society.
Turkey has always had a tension between secularists and religious conservatives.
Declining women’s rights, borne out of an increasingly ultra-conservative attitude towards their role in society, is symptomatic of Turkey’s wider drift from the open and liberal values that once defined its politics and society. Its increasing closeness to Iran, Turkey and China, all nations with woeful records on women and minority civil rights, is a clear signal of the direction of travel.
Leaving the Istanbul Convention would be the latest effort by President Erdogan to repudiate what he sees as western values ‘encroaching’ on his attempts to build an Islamist Turkey. A young woman in Ankara or Istanbul today will undoubtedly look on with concern as their future prospects in the workplace, politics and society in general are eroded by a man determined to revert the country back to a Neo-Ottoman ideal of womanhood, which bears no relation to modern-day, 21st century values.
Turkey has always had a tension between secularists and religious conservatives. The problem is, that in this battleground, it is women who are the real losers as Erdogan plays on Islamism to consolidate his base of religious conservatives.
There is little us outsiders can do to halt his determination to trample on hard-earned women’s rights except to shine a spotlight and call out President Erdogan’s efforts to undermine his country’s proud past of female suffrage and liberation.